Saturday, November 5, 2016

How To Kill An Oxfart

oxfart, n \'ox-fart\ : An anagram of "fox" and "rat," used frivolously by the author of Snow Crash to denote any creature that is perceived to be despicable and worthy of being killed.

The huge highway billboard depicted a snarling, mangy, furtive creature skulking through some bushes, obviously up to no damn good. The message below the photo urged the public to help control this dire threat to the environment, the economy, and to public health by all means necessary, and showed one of the packets of poison being distributed by government authorities for that purpose.

The photo was of a fox.

Oxfartus Foxus
The billboard was part of a 10-year fox eradication program carried out in Tasmania, Australia from 2006 to 2014. My wife and I were traveling there at the time, and were puzzled by the negative portrayal of an animal we generally regarded very positively. Red foxes were introduced into Australia during the 1800's by the British for sport hunting, but unfortunately the foxes, being hunters themselves, began to prey on many vulnerable native species and have driven a number of them to extinction (Wikipedia). This, of course, is yet another sad example of the negative consequences of human ignorance and arrogance in environmental and ecological matters (see The Curious Case of the Kona Coyote for more). 

As the billboard campaign in Tasmania illustrates, it is helpful to demonize another species in order to
provide psychological justification for killing its members and to motivate the public to take part or at least tolerate it. As history shows, when the targets are our fellow humans, additional techniques of dehumanization and dastardization (my term) can be included to make extermination, enslavement, exploitation, and abuse acceptable or even righteously called for as part of the natural order of things.
Cuteus Foxus

The fox is generally considered an attractive, resourceful, and intelligent animal that most of us don't perceive as particularly threatening or dangerous even if it occasionally becomes a nuisance or a pest (raiding the chicken coup, for instance). The Australians therefore had to work fairly hard to change its public image as part of the eradication and control campaign.
 
Rats, on the other hand have been demonized for centuries and no extra public media campaign is needed to make killing them seem justified. Perhaps going back to the days of the Black Plague or earlier, rats have had a very negative reputation despite (or perhaps because of) being our close urban
Oxfartus Ratus
companions for hundreds of years. Traits that have allowed rats to thrive in ecological and evolutionary terms are seen as revoltingly negative.  They are omnivorous, opportunistic scavengers, and they are not too picky in what they eat or where they eat it -- garbage dumps, trash cans, or pet-food bowls. They are very adept at staying near food supplies by utilizing any available shelter, including sewers, attics, and walls. And of course, rats breed prolifically, which increases their competition for food and makes them tenacious seekers of new food supplies. They can be very destructive in their quest for food and shelter -- gnawing through walls and screens and even chewing on automobile wires coated with new environmentally-friendly soy-based coverings (NBC News, 1/26/16)
.  All of these things lead to the same conclusion  -- like a fox in Tasmania, the only good one is a dead one.

Once demonized, methods of controlling varmints like rats and foxes (i.e., oxfarts) are evaluated primarily on practical and economic criteria rather than whether they are humane. After all, who cares if such a nasty creature suffers a little as long as it dies.  For example, in Tasmania the poison sodium fluoroacetate, or "1080" was widely used in the eradication campaign. This poison is especially lethal to mammals, including canines, rodents, and humans. Though effective, it would be hard to defend it as humane way to kill anything.  According to Wikipedia:
"In humans, the symptoms of poisoning normally appear between 30 minutes and three hours after exposure. Initial symptoms typically include nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain; sweating, confusion, and agitation follow. In significant poisoning, cardiac abnormalities including tachycardia or bradycardia, hypotension, and ECG changes develop. Neurological effects include muscle twitching and seizures; consciousness becomes progressively impaired after a few hours leading to coma. Death is normally due to ventricular arrhythmias, progressive hypotension unresponsive to treatment, and secondary lung infections. Symptoms in domestic animals vary: dogs tend to show nervous system signs such as convulsions, vocalization, and uncontrollable running, whilst large herbivores such as cattle and sheep more predominantly show cardiac signs. Sub-lethal doses of sodium fluoroacetate may cause damage to tissues with high energy needs — in particular, the brain, gonads, heart, lungs, and fetus."  Wikipedia, "Sodium Fluoroacetate"
Sodium fluoracetate is tightly controlled in the U.S., restricted primarily to poison collars placed on sheep so that a predator who eats the sheep (usually a coyote or wolf, not a fox) will either die or develop a mutton aversion. This poison is no longer available in the U.S. as a method to kill rats, but there are a number of others that are, and selling them is BIG business. Worldwide an estimated $45 billion a year is spent on rodent control, about $1.4 billion in the U.S. alone.

According to the authoritative website, Rats in the Attic, here are the major poisons found in products you can buy, and how they work:
  • Anticoagulants: Includes warfarin, brodifacoum, flocoumafen, coumatetraly, difenacoum, and bromadiolone. Anticoagulants damage capillaries (the tiny blood vessels), and cause internal bleeding (hemorrhaging). This process takes a few days. Documented cases of human warfarin poisoning record severe pain from bleeding into muscles and joints. In the final phase, the animal dies of hypovolemic circulatory shock.
  • Bromethalin: Attacks the nervous system, and causes limb ataxia, extensor rigidity, opisthotonus, lateral recumbency hind limb hyper-reflexia, seizures, hyperthennia, and finally death after 36 hours or so.
  • Cholecalciferol: It produces hypercalcemia, which results in systemic calcification of soft tissue, leading to renal failure, cardiac abnormalities, hypertension, CNS depression, and leads to death in 24-36 hours.
  • Strychnine: causes muscular convulsions and eventually death through asphyxia or sheer exhaustion.
  • Antifreeze - Ethylene glycol: The liver metabolizes ethylene glycol into glycolate and oxalate, which cause cellular damage in various tissues and organs, especially the kidneys. So after an initial stage of nausea and vomiting and muscle twitches, kidney, liver, even heart failure cause death, usually in about 24 hours.  (Source: Rats in the Attic: How to Poison Rats)
Surely only a true demon deserves to die by one of these poisons, and then only if there are no practical alternatives to protect us from its demonic presence.

A quick perusal of your local hardware or homestore's large section of pest control products will reveal a number of possible alternatives to poisons.  One that is more environmentally friendly but hardly more humane than poison is the glue trap, sold for controlling a number of pests, including rats and mice. These devices guarantee a long, lingering, and painful death by inhibiting the animal's movements so that dies from starvation, self-inflicted injury or from the stress and exhaustion of trying to free itself. At least one animal protection organization has called for a ban on glue traps -- not an unreasonable position it seems to me (see PETA's statement, for example).

Snap Trap
There are two devices that can kill rats humanely, and the first of these is strongly recommended by professional exterminators at Rats in the Attic. The simple snap trap, invented in the late 1800's, is still considered perhaps the most effective, reliable, environmentally friendly, safe, and humane way to deal with rodent demons (see Wikipedia for details).  The mechanism is straight-forward, though the result sounds a bit gruesome.  A spring-loaded wire bar is released when the rat touches the bait, descending with enough force to kill the animal almost instantly by crushing its skull, ribs, or spinal cord.  Death is usually very quick, so the animal's suffering is much less than with poison or glue traps. Fancier versions come with a lever that makes disposing of the body fast and clean.

Electronic Trap
The second device is more high-tech and costs a lot more, but is equally humane and has certain aesthetic advantages that I find appealing.  It is the method I've used successfully around my own
home when repelling and live-trapping have failed (note: for those who believe live-trapping and relocating are the most humane techniques you might consider assessments by both PETA and by Rats in the Attic which propose otherwise).  This battery-powered device delivers an electric shock to the rat that instantly renders it unconscious and kills it by stopping its heart. The current is high enough to cause cardiac arrest but not so high that it creates a rat-kebab.  To the extent you are willing to infer that the rat feels no pain while unconscious, this method is very humane.

Despite the appeal of killing things that we regard as pests, the best way to handle rats, foxes, and other oxfarts is to prevent them in the first place. As the example of the Tasmanian fox illustrates, the real cause of a pest problem may in fact be human behavior, not innately demonic characteristics of the pest. In Australia humans deliberately imported a non-native animal and released it so they could hunt it for sport. The extinction of animals the foxes preyed upon for food is very negative, of course, but it could be argued that humans are as much to blame for the extinctions as the foxes.

In the case of rodents, human behavior may also be a large part of the cause. The way we often provide open access to garbage around homes, restaurants and public spaces, for instance, produces an irresistible buffet for rats & mice, and an endless supply of delicious, nutritious food for them. Our buildings are often designed and maintained without regard to the fact that they provide excellent shelter in the form of unsealed nooks, crannies and hidden spaces. And in poor neighborhoods with substandard housing and minimal city services these conditions are even more prevalent.  If even a small portion of the $1.4 billion spent annually on poisons and traps went to better sanitation and waste-handling the population of rats would drop considerably.

But by far the most effective way to reduce the numbers of rats is to stop them from reproducing.  A very promising method to do this has recently been developed by the biotech company Senestech. When rats consume a patented liquid bait both the males and females become infertile. They live out the rest of their lives without side effects, though they may be puzzled as to why they aren't producing any little oxfarts. The natural lifespan of a typical urban rat is about 8-12 months, during which a mating pair can produce up to 15,000 pups. The math is pretty clear -- by preventing reproduction in a rat colony the number of rats will start to decline within a very short time.  In one test case in New York subways the decrease was 40% in just 3 months (The Guardian, 9/20/16).  The product is called ContraPest, and has recently won EPA registration so it will likely become commercially available soon.  Besides being effective and humane, ContraPest is environmentally friendly because the ingredients quickly break down, both within the rat's body and in water or soil.  Since it metabolized quickly, if the rat is eaten by another animal the sterilization effects are not likely to be transferred.  Sounds like a big win for everyone and everything -- except for the rats, of course.

Cuteus Ratus
Humans are unique in that we are the only animal that has invented new and creative methods of killing other creatures and even members of our own species. We are also the only animal that can deliberately choose which of those methods to use, when to use them, and whether to kill at all.  Hopefully our unique qualities as a species can include empathy, compassion, and sympathetic kindness in making those choices, even for oxfarts.

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Sources and Resources:
"The Curious Case of the Kona Coyote:"  Snow Crash, 5/6/14
"Red Foxes in Australia:" Wikipedia
10-year fox eradication program: Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service 
"Sodium Fluoroacetate:" Wikipedia
"How to Poison Rats Effectively:" Rats in the Attic
"Mousetrap:" Wikipedia 
"Trapping Mice & Rats:" PETA
"Humane Live Trapping:" Rats in the Attic
"Man v Rat: Could the Long War Soon Be Over?" The Guardian, 9/20/16
"Rodent Control: Our Product:"  Senestech